Complexity

Tech: Outside the safe operating space.

Scientists have proposed that as annual production and releases of manmade technologies accelerate at a pace that outstrips the global capacity for assessment and monitoring – the safe operating space of the planetary boundary of novel entities has been exceeded. This paper, lead by Lyn Persson and colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Centre helps policymakers, scientists and the public to further articulate the problems of Anthropogenic pollution, which often is seen an impossible, wicked problem, – or just too complex.

If we can’t take precautionary action to restrict emissions, we simply can’t steward earth systems, and protect human health.

Earlier, in 2009 Rockstr√∂m, Steffen & colleagues had outlined how the crossing of biophysical thresholds could have ‘disastrous consequences for humanity’. Their 2009 paper included chemical pollution, and this definition was later updated and extended in 2015, in the paper Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet paper.

The 2015 paper renamed the chemical boundary, introducing the term ‘novel entities, defined as

‘new substances, new forms of existing substances and modified life-forms that have the potential for unwanted geophysical and/or biological effects. Anthropogenic introduction of novel entities to the environment are of concern at the global level when these entities exhibit (i) persistence, (ii) mobility across scales with consequent widespread distributions, and (iii) potential impacts on vital Earth System processes or sub-systems. These potentially include chemicals and other new types of engineered materials/organisms not previously known to the Earth System as well as naturally occurring elements (for example heavy metals) mobilized by anthropogenic activities.’

Persson and colleagues propose three criteria of the suitability of control variables for the planetary boundary: feasibility, relevance, and comprehensiveness. Output can be feasibly quantified/measured through trends in production volumes. Pressure can be robustly linked to effects (such as persistence, potential for bioaccumulation and toxicity), and the trends can draw attention to the scale of the emissions and potential pollution.

The scientists conclude that humanity is currently operating outside the planetary boundary based on
the weight-of-evidence for several of these control variables. In response, they suggest that reduction of releases and emissions are required, suggesting caps on novel entities, similarly to carbon emissions, should be undertaken.

I have released a video which discusses this paper, but which (possibly irritating the scientists) delves into novel entities as a driver of human & environmental health and the failure of governments (such as in New Zealand) to provide a space for independent, public science to explore risk (when most regulation is undertaken following the supply of private data from the industry seeking to release the technology).

Many chemicals disrupt health by acting as hormone, or endocrine disruptors, setting the conditions for the development of cancer and neurodevelopmental delay, following exposures to chemical emissions. Exposures can be particularly harmful in utero, in infancy and childhood. The release of newer genetically edited technologies, and chemicals such as herbicides, carry clear potential for unanticipated and/or harmful off-target effects that are not easily reversed. The video draws attention to the difficulty scientists have in accessing funding for this research, which is often outside the scope of funding policies, but which stymies knowledge of harm, delaying regulation.

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